The Magazine

EDUCATION

Jun 2, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 37 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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The post-big-government era never actually arrived in the field of education. Its chances at best were about as real as the prospect of finding true love with someone your parents told you to look up. Neither Congress nor the White House was ever seriously interested.

As President Clinton noted in his May 17 radio address, the new budget deal contains the biggest expansion in federal education spending since Lyndon Johnson occupied the Oval Office. When all the new college tax credits and deductions are added up, it will indeed be "the largest single increase in higher education since the G.I. bill in 1945." The budget agreement also provides for at least one other sizable item on the White House education shopping list: the new "America Reads" program, meant to place a million " volunteers" (many of them paid) in the nation's classrooms at a cost of several hundred million dollars annually.

But the generous picnic served up by the budget pact is just part of the federal feast being cooked for the U.S. education establishment and the interest groups that regularly dine with it. A special-education bill that sailed through Congress the other week, far from shrinking or restructuring this heavy-handed program, expands and further complicates it. Looming next on the horizon is reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is all but certain to turn into another contest between Republicans and Democrats to see which side can lavish more money on an enterprise that is already sadly over-built, over-priced, under-productive, and lacking in quality control.

In education, at least, big government, far from having outlived its time, seems to have been reborn. What's remarkable about its current growth is the gusto with which the Republican Congress is joining in. Today, it's hard even to recall that moment two years ago when GOP leaders spoke of getting Washington off the backs of schools and communities, of empowering parents rather than bureaucrats and interest groups, of repealing harmful programs and blockgranting others, even of putting the Department of Education out of the misery it causes.

Such words drifted away on the same breezes that carried off Clinton's widely noted claims about big government's demise. In education, I judge, he never meant them. Congressional leaders may once have been serious about the task, but they were outfoxed by the administration, which ran a deft election campaign on the premise that the way to gauge a politician's commitment to education is by how much he is willing to spend and how many programs he supports. Well before Election Day 1996, the GOP majority was vying with the White House over who could write the fatter budget for federal education programs, good, bad, and indifferent. Since few in that majority could explain why a top-to-bottom overhaul would solve the country's education problems better than another injection of federal cash and regulation, the Republicans simply abandoned the fight. They were Kasparov to the president's Big Blue.

Like IBM's supercomputer playing at chess, American education today is, in William James's vivid phrase, a "tyrannical machine." It is its own boss, answering to no one but its innumerable organizational "stakeholders." It scorns its own customers while tirelessly pursuing its own interests: expansion of its revenues and defense of its monopoly. Serious challenges to this machine are now being made in some states and communities. The spread of charter schools, contract management of public schools, privately funded voucher programs, even a few examples of the publicly supported sort, attest to the widening revolt in the countryside. Some people actually seem to be waking up to the fact that the system squanders both their money and their children.

But the rebels are a long way from the capital city. There we witness the opposite: deepening tyranny, more money, bigger government, and worse policy. Now, though, it's bipartisan bad policy.

Look again at that budget agreement. Its juiciest education windfall is a set of tuition tax breaks intended to make the "13th and 14th grades" universal. Virtually every analyst who has looked at this idea finds it misbegotten. The problem with higher education isn't too few people starting the process. We already have more college than high-school students and the world's loftiest matriculation rates: two-thirds of all high-school graduates go straight to college and more follow later. The great problem is that so many of those who enter aren't prepared for college-level work because they learned so little beforehand.

Almost a third of today's freshmen require remediation -- and more would if academic standards hadn't also slipped. That leads to costly compensatory classes and a soaring college dropout rate. Assuring everyone a free ride through grades 13 and 14 is like paying for high school twice. It signals the futility of reforming grades 1 through 12. And it will tempt every college in the land -- already costly and sluggish -- to hike its prices to harvest the new federal windfall.

As for "America Reads," the more one knows about reading, the less sense the program makes. The reason a great many schoolkids never learn to read well is not that their classrooms lack adults; it's that those adults don't know how to teach reading. Says Dr. Reid Lyon, the National Institutes of Health's chief authority on reading: "Teachers want to do the best they can. It's just that they don't have the conceptual tools. They weren't trained in those. So a lot of this stuff tutors are supposed to do, unless they're provided with that information, I don't see how you would expect that to improve anything."

If you believe that a million fresh-faced amateurs, overseen by 11,000 AmeriCorps volunteers, after brief training by the nation's colleges of education, are going to bring proper phonemic methods of reading instruction into classrooms where the full-time teachers don't do that well, you're more of an optimist about these things than I am.

Now look again at the new special-education law. Actually, you will have to look for the first time, since it sped through the House and Senate so fast, nobody had time to examine it prior to enactment. It was written behind closed doors by a handful of congressional aides, administration activists, and special-interest lobbyists. Their sole objective was to reach consensus among those in the room. Anything they could agree on was deemed enactable, hence wise public policy.

The fruit of this secretive process -- a vast, tangled piece of legislation whose real workings are barely understood by anyone -- was whisked through both chambers. Trent Lott's chief of staff choreographed the production -- without amendments, lest House and Senate versions differ at all. (So long as identical versions are passed, there's no need for a conference committee, hence no opportunity for delays that might give people a chance to scrutinize the measure.)

Naturally, this well-greased legislation passed by huge margins. Though hailed as an example of bipartisanship, its enactment was more like a case study in special-interest politics. The bill makes a few small improvements in a sorely troubled program. But each of its "reforms" invites new problems - - and more government. Consider these three:

P The current program gives a state additional money if it "classifies" more children as disabled -- a genuinely perverse incentive. The new bill shifts to a formula based on population and poverty -- but that new formula doesn't kick in until Congress appropriates almost 2 billion additional dollars. Let's not be surprised if that day dawns soon.

P Supporters claim the bill shrinks the portion of federal special-ed dollars going to overhead and boosts the part going to classrooms. But that isn't quite true. The increase actually goes for "capacity building," which means teacher training, which means another plump subsidy for the nation's colleges of education.

P The bill's most controversial provision -- the issue that bogged it down during the last Congress -- deals with disabled kids who bring weapons to school. Can they be expelled like other students? (Indeed, another federal law requires schools to suspend or expel weapons-bearing students.) The short answer is no. Under the new plan, the school system can never slough off responsibility for educating a disabled youngster, no matter what he does or to whom. It may move him to another program, but only temporarily and only after jumping through dozens of procedural hoops. Nor does the measure acknowledge that, in the words of a Georgia educator, "teeth and feet and hands can be weapons just as much as knives can."

For principals and school boards faced with disruptive disabled pupils, the new law actually provides less leeway than the old one, which allows for 10- day suspensions. Now, according to a Knoxville school attorney who tracks these issues, "you won't be able to do anything but move the child to another school." (To such concerns, the Education Department's chief enforcer tartly replied that educators should quit complaining and should instead learn new methods of behavior modification to prevent classroom disruptions. Perhaps she hasn't done much teaching lately.)

More revealing than any changes made by the measure, however, are its silences -- the big-government assumptions it leaves untouched.

Washington's involvement with special education began as a well-intended effort to aid the many disabled youngsters ill served -- even turned away -- by school systems that couldn't be bothered to deal with the challenges they posed. Congress decreed in 1975 that they would henceforth have the right to a free, appropriate education at public expense and offered a trickle of federal dollars to wash down the costly medicine that communities were thus forced to swallow.

Questions instantly arose. How do you define "appropriate"? Who does the defining? Who exactly is disabled? What happens when educating some children according to federal mandates undermines the community's ability to pay for the education of its other children?

In reply to every such query came another pile of regulations -- that's how government grows bigger, after all -- and soon the nation's schools were choking. Youngsters deemed to be disabled -- there were powerful incentives so to deem ever more of them -- enjoyed first claim on district budgets, never mind the havoc wrought in other areas. The handicaps that Congress had in mind -- blindness, cerebral palsy, retardation, spina bifida, etc. -- were overwhelmed by millions of youngsters in a hazy new category called "learning disabled." A different standard came to be applied to their behavior. Classroom conduct once judged naughty and punishable was now excused as beyond the perpetrator's control. Bureaucracy and litigation overtook the enforcement of "appropriate" education. Parents got their lawyers' bills paid by the school system -- and law firms specializing in these cases grew wealthy at taxpayer expense. In the name of "inclusion," teachers were sent children they couldn't handle and who disrupted the education of others.

The federal subsidy grew -- to $ 3.1 billion in the present fiscal year -- but not nearly so fast as the program's costs. Uncle Sam now pays about 8 percent of the bill. The other 92 percent is by far the largest unfunded federal mandate in the education field.

All that and much more remains intact under the new law, which nearly everyone in Congress voted for and which education secretary Richard Riley hailed as a triumph for education. No matter that two years ago, GOP leaders were pledging to curb such mandates. Never mind that those same leaders once voiced doubts about special privileges for victim groups. Forget that they once promised to lighten the burden of federal regulation. Pretend you never heard that we're supposed to be restoring individual responsibility and civil society; Congress has just signaled again that you can get away with mayhem so long as you can claim that it wasn't really your fault.

This was once known as the "Gee, Officer Krupke" defense. Today, we're more apt to associate it with O. J. and the Menendez brothers and others who blame their homicidal actions on racism, poverty, global warming, budget cuts, unloving parents, or lack of self-esteem.

No, it's not a good lesson to teach schoolchildren. But why should school be different from real life? In real life, we can watch the nation's leaders doing harm while claiming to do good, expanding government while claiming to shrink it. It's Washington's version of the Menendez defense: I am innocent of any misdeeds, because politics made me commit them.